Spare the Son/Hate the [Fly] Rod

A couple of weeks ago, Trevin Wax produced an interesting take here on the potential implications of kids' lack of exposure to the outdoors. Wax’s piece resonated with me because it heavily aligned with a key premise advanced in my forthcoming book, Theology from the Spring. The premise? Simply that we need more broken fly rods today. Now, to the fisherman, such counsel might sound odious. To the non-fishing parent, it’s perhaps down-right confusing.  So please allow me to back up for a moment to properly frame the context of where I’m couching said counsel.

Imagine the scene: A young dad wakes his groggy six-year old from the warmth of their cabin. For the lad, the chilly air tries to chase him back into bed, as he languidly throws on layers of clothes. For dad, the stream beckons the opportunity to hook another member of the family, just as it captivated him decades earlier. Dad shuffles about the dawn with excitement, dressing the fishing rods before arrival to strike while fish are hot. Son, while interested in the prospects swirling within the spring, saunters out into the crisp Ozark mountain air with faculties that are not yet fully-engaged. And just as dad is tying up the sure-catch fly on the boy’s rod, the fishing equivalent of the abomination that causes desolation occurs: the boy steps on dad’s new $220 fly rod, breaking it in half.

   We need more broken rods today.

We need more broken rods today.

The Dad’s face turns ashen gray at the sight. His heart sinks, conceding his best-laid plans for the day have been snapped. His prized possession, the tool of the fly fishing craftsman, has been rendered useless. It was the very grace of God that slowed time, providing dad with options of how to respond that were contrary to his boiling blood. How would he react? Would he teach the kid a lesson for his carelessness, by invoking the well-known Proverb, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son,” and applying the rod on his bottom to save the boy from future destruction? The dad weighed this option as it snarled within his head.  But as the father peered down at the boy’s drooping face, grappling with the urge of fleshly anger that instigates vengeance when we are wronged, something caused him to respond contrarily… at that moment he realized that in the bigger picture, a gospel-centered application of that Proverb actually meant turning it on its head. He needed to hate the fly rod – that is, be willing to devote it to destruction— in order to spare the boy. In fact, this conclusion speaks to a larger truth that there needs to be more broken rods if we are to train up our children unto Godly wisdom.

By now, if you haven't figured it out, I owe you this confession for reading this far: I am that dad. But with summer imminently upon us, the question incumbent on all of us parents is this: "What does this vignette calling for more broken rods mean?" In short, it means the cost of a fly rod is a pittance compared to the value of time—time spent discipling our kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord. The general precept is that it is better to have broken rods in order to have opportunities outdoors with our kids, than to keep the rods safe by remaining inside. But more specifically, here are three reasons why we need more broken fly rods.

1.       Broken Rods Mean Opportunities for Dealing with Our Broken Condition

In order to have a broken rod, we must live in a broken world. The mere occurrence of a broken rod means we’re at least out on the banks of the stream taking in glimpses of veiled beauty in a paradise gone wrong. The stream provides vistas of not only our perfect beginnings in the garden, but also points to the future when all will be restored. The water currents enticing father and son today, call to mind our future hope of the river of life that will flow from the throne of the exalted Creator (Rev. 22:1-2). An immediate contrast can be seen at the stream as a sort of typology of the broken us vs. the future restored setting we’ll inhabit as restored people, just by getting out to where a rod can be broken.

But from a non-eschatological level, broken rods mean we must deal with our broken flesh, and the sin that flows forth from our sinful hearts. Whether your rod is a Winston fly rod, a new Callaway driver, or new Air Jordan’s muddied up in the creek: exposing our most coveted toys to our kids provides us with opportunities to place potential idols in their rightful place. I don’t think we can adequately place a value on the permanent “sticking” of a gospel lesson in the mind of a child. In a way, broken rods avail a unique chance to obey Christ: to pluck out eyes those eyes that cause us to sin (Matt. 5:29), or not causing little ones to stumble by reinforcing consumer goods as “gotta have it” idols (Matt. 18:6).

But not only does unsheathing our rods afford us the chance to put something off, it also opens the doors to put something on. Specifically, it allows us to practice those fruits of the Spirit we should be developing: grace, patience, forgiveness—all virtues that I should have if I am in Christ. My son gets to see first-hand, in real-life how his dad values him above a prized fly rod. I get to mortify my flesh before his eyes in real time, proving that the “stuff” I value is mere means to the end of a father pouring into a son. And my son (hopefully) gets to see patience flow forth in the inevitable ways of his line getting tangled. But just as important, my son gets to see me lose my temper and not be the patient dad I ought to be when I have to untangle his line for the 20th time. While such actual failures expose my broken human condition, it also drives me to repent and ask for my son’s forgiveness, modeling a behavior I hope he one day follows: that the leaders of the home need also be the foremost repenters.

2.       Broken Rods Mean Developing Healthy Lifestyles

Breaking a rod means, in all likelihood, that a kid is not laying idle on the couch. As creatures tasked with the special privilege of subduing and ordering the created world as God’s vice-regents, our mandate necessarily requires we get outdoors to interact with the rest of creation. But our task of stewardship and upkeep of the environment is made all the more difficult if we are not up-keeping our own physical health.  Here are just a few of the litany of health benefits ascribed to being outdoors:

  • Youth with a BMI categorized as obese have notably lower rates of participation in the outdoors.
  • 90% of kids who spend time outdoors indicated that being in nature helped relieve stress.
  • Children who are exposed to the outdoors have higher levels of vitamin D, which strengthens their bones and immune systems.
  • Kids who play regularly in natural environments have more advanced motor skills, balance, and coordination.
  • Sick people recover faster, and require fewer painkillers, when given greater exposure to nature.
  • Studies show that camping, hiking, fishing, and other outdoor activities lead to better mental health, increased self-esteem, and positive character development.  
  • Outdoor activity has shown in studies to allow the brain to recharge at greater capacity, producing better results academically, socially, and cognitively.

Further data is abundant, but superfluous at this point, as the case is clear that we, stewards of the outdoors, thrive by spending time outdoors. Even if that means breaking rods…

3.       Broken Rods Mean Deferring to God and Dying to Self

One of the beauties of observing a broken rod is that something has occurred beyond our control. While obviously in the proper context, there is much to be said about providing a controlled, routine, safe environment for our kids. But the paradox is that where we often miss the mark is the subtle ways we try to wrestle control of our circumstances away from the Creator, stifling our ability to respond with obedience. While the outcome might be safe, controlled, or staged to produce a photo op that exalts our kids’ self-esteem, more often than not, scripted moments like this are buoyed by a flawed motive that subordinates God’s praise to the praise of self. But we aren’t God, and a day is coming when our child won’t be able to dictate their circumstances. Will they praise God in that moment?

This is why I love the outdoors: it is the ultimate battlefield where I can die to self and defer to the God of the universe. The same God who binds and sustains every one of the billions of water molecule filling the stream, Who directs it flow with harmony, is the same sovereign Being that can cause/prevent that next fish to bite. The same one Who can re-route that deer from/to passing our way. The same being who alone causes the rain to fall, the waters to rise, and the spring to flow. Getting off the couch, and into the raw, untamed domain of nature, strips us of our ability to coerce certain outcomes, freeing us to be spectators who can simply live in the moment. The unpredictability of the outdoors reminds us of the fact we strangely are too prone to forget: we are not God.

One of the biggest draws of our electronic devices is how they enable us to construct a faux sovereignty. Gadgets enable us to control the results. If we don’t like the outcome of a video game, we hit reset. If we are annoyed by the contents of a particular text message, we simply ignore, or even worse, delete it, functionally denying  the existence of God’s image bearer who sent it. And if we become dismayed at our lack of attention, we simply contrive a social media post, controlling a less than realistic image of self projected to others.

But the outdoors on the other hand… when we get outside with the opportunity to create a broken rod, we find an environment that is not at all tame. We can’t control the wilderness at hand. And this is good for our kids to see. It’s good to eliminate our God-complex right before their eyes. It’s good we can’t control the minutia of our environment, which then drives us to a genuine worship of the true God who providentially guides every atom in the cosmos. A broken rod points us away from self and to that Being.

We need more broken rods. While I don’t enjoy having my rod broken (has happened more than once), the alternative is much, much worse.  I could protect my rod by leaving my son at home, effectively sparing the fly rod and hating the boy.  But my duty as steward over both my son and the stream will not permit any such inversion of our divine calling. A calling that may result in hating my prized fly rod in order to spare my child a life of not seeing His Creator’s reflection, in the theology from the spring.

Immutable Friendships

There’s something about nature that makes it the perfect staging area for rekindling old friendships. Perhaps it’s the nascent air that quickens us upon arrival? Or the sensory ambush of unvarnished environments, impervious to the passage of time or the fingerprints of mankind, that trigger the nostalgia of simpler, happy times. Said another way, the visual indomitableness of the outdoors hearkens us back to old friendships, before layers of age and complexity accumulated to suppress our once-playful selves. A time when friendships were simple, bound by mutual interests and frivolous humor that were slow to take offense.

Such was the case recently when I had the opportunity to re-connect with an old friend. I hadn’t seen Kevin (affably nicknamed “The Goose”), in nearly fifteen years. In addition the common threads woven through our childhood, such as playing sports together, coming from divorced parents, and getting part-time jobs together to reign in our impetuous high school goofiness, we also shared the common bond of loving to fish.

During those youthful days of old, if Goose and I were in a tense season or awkward times, one only had to invoke the proposition of going fishing. Such words served as an implicit armistice—once uttered by one, it could not be declined by the other.  In the midst of looming two-a-day sports practices, or high school drama, Goose and I could always escape for a day of solace at a trout park. And as we grew (not matured) and went separate ways in college, upon reuniting during summer breaks, once the perfunctory pleasantries were exchanged the conversation always turned to fishing.

Fishing has that magical quality of being able to tether divergent personalities to an unchangeable common denominator. Reconnecting with Goose at a familiar trout park proved to be no different. Sure, I was a little more paunch than he remembered. He had a little more gray than I remembered. Each of us were a little more mature and measured than we both remembered. But all in all, through a reunion under-girded by a near-immutable ambiance, we seemingly picked up where we left off years before.  It was as if time had stood still at the spring, awaiting our inevitable return.

Jake iPhone Pics 011.JPG

It’s quite fascinating, really, to consider why fishing is such an ever-reliable friendship epoxy. But when all the reunion stories are unshelved, I’m left to conclude that fishing’s efficacy as an agent for bringing dissonant personalities back together has more to do with the medium than the activity. Where would I get such an idea?

Consider first how the spring, itself, exudes constancy. The spring is consistent in temperature—the one Goose and I visited, in particular, remains between 56-58 degrees year-round—which is about as unchanging as any embodiment one can find in the natural world. Whether you are six or sixty, the brisk greeting from the spring's embrace never changes as you wade in and become encapsulated within its waters. Second, each trip to the spring reveals a constancy in the life found in it. Not only is life in general sustained by the spring as the Creator's necessary means (not unlike the necessity for a greater cause/Creator that sustains life within us), but one can see how its unique conditions permit only specific kinds of life to be found in its breadth. It's as if the Creator wove unique kinds of colors, plants, and animals with the spindle of his finger, to ensure a special home where one can consistently observe sculpin, rainbow trout, red-back salamanders, king fishers, and other life who depend on its chilly currents. Life forms appear custom-fitted for their particular habitat. The “circle of life” predictably continues on, untainted, within the calculus of the spring’s hospitality.

Finally, the year-round, 24-hour ebb and flow of the spring provides the constancy necessary for all its visitors and inhabitants to enjoy. Its reach, drawing water from fifty miles away and channeling it underground through its aquifers – some for decades before it sees the light of day—adds to its eternal mystique. While small springs can go dry, the larger ones, whose bosom breeds the fish we love to catch—demonstrate a constant flow that seemingly has neither beginning nor end. It is the reliability of the spring’s perpetual effluence that requires the landscape, the vegetation, the stream channels, and the very eco-system to abide by a sort of timeless ordering established by the spring. The spring valley appears as a tapestry, where animal, plant, and water each know their respective places, manning their posts season after season. Such ordering allows us to return to it its banks and find nostalgia in a place seemingly impervious to time. This creation exists as a type, pointing to something else under-girding it… Something that is not subject to the vicissitudes of time. Something that cements the ongoing constancy of the spring, as it does our enduring relationships.

So looking beyond, what is the cause of this constancy? The great philosopher and theologian Augustine, addressing the Creator of all things—which include springs and friendships alike—in his Confessions, declared “Your years are an ever-present day… All the days to come shall so receive and so pass away. But You are always the same!” The Psalmist declared “You are the same, and your years have no end” (Ps. 102:27). For these reasons, we sense, as creatures, not only the immutability of the Creator who sustains the constancy we need for daily life reflected via the constancy of the spring. But moreover, we sense an ever-penetrating obligation, as creatures, to praise the Creator. This obligation falls on people as God’s image-bearers, but also to the fish and the deep pools of the spring itself. This might sound odd at first glance. But the Creator's inspired words read, “Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created… Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all the deeps” (Ps. 148:5-7).

As difficult as it is to hit a moving target, it is equally vexing to perpetually praise (as we and the spring are tasked to do) that which changes. The reason being, the object of our praise would always in a state of becoming—changing into something other than it was when praise was first elicited. Only an unchanging Creator that grounds our peace and establishes our relationships in Him can be worthy of such praise. Such a being, who generally reveals Himself to us through the spring, specially reveals Himself to us by declaring, “For I the LORD do not change… Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:6-7).

The azure pools of the spring provide a medium of expression. To answer my earlier contemplation, it is the spring as the medium, not the activity of fishing, that provides one of the best tonics for renewing old relationships. And the reason why? Because the spring is one of most pure expressions of timelessness one can find.

The spring points to that who binds and looses us eternally. I end by standing on the shoulders of Augustine once again, who noted, “Actually, creation speaks to all, but the only ones who understand it compare the voice received from without with the truth from within. Truth says to me, ‘Neither heaven nor earth nor anybody is your God.’ Their very nature tells this to the one beholding them.” It is the creature, whether spring or human, that points to the Creator. An eternal, unchanging Creator. And because He does not change, we can take great comfort knowing His promises never change, either. In the theology from the spring, we find discordant things brought together by the agent of creation, pointing to the ultimate reconciliation the Creator provides. Enemies brought together, reconciled as friends. A reconciliation rendered timeless.

Looking for a Fight

Some people just need a fight. Ever known the type?  You know, the person who always gravitates to gnashing conflict?  If you’re not familiar with the type, go observe the next business meeting at your local Baptist Church, which has a way of drawing this type of person. Or how about the type that finds a way to let trivial matters boil over into a fight—when it’s clearly perceived the real issue is not the thing they are even fighting about? To my chagrin, I can be this type, whose pent-up frustration finds no outlet and manifests itself through an extraneous outlet, reminding me of my need for repentance. 

 Blue Ribbon stretch of the Current River

Blue Ribbon stretch of the Current River

While not everyone permits their emotions to spill over into verbal combat, subduing pent-up frustrations to some degree is something common to all of us. And for that reason, I find a good fight in a proper venue to be a good thing.  Even a healthy thing! Let me explain.

As creatures, we bear the stamp, or image of our creator. This image plays out in a number of ways: we possess moral faculties, an intrinsic sense of stewardship, means for employing creative expressions, etc. But this side of the fall, we also have an inherited and embedded love of self. Our love of self is impossible to resist without the assistance of the creator. Thus, we will always encounter conflicts of interest when our love-of-self intersects with another human being’s love-of-self, or even more acutely brazen, with the creator’s precepts. So while we can suppress these self-exalting desires, call it “stress” in an accrued sense, they can build and build until they spillover into conflict. Rather than dying to self as the creator has called us to do, we wish to cause the other person to die, in a sense, through devaluing their worth, by way of their interests, for our own.

My only hope in these situations is, as Puritan John Owen eloquently exhorted, to mortify our flesh. I go to the creator and confess and repent of my sin of pride and love of self, which as an act of oblation, helps dissipate my pent-up frustration. However, another means that makes this practice all the more concrete is to look for a fight… A fight not with other people— God’s image bearer—but with one of His creatures He has tasked us to subdue and exercise dominion (Gen. 1:28—another facet of being made in the creator’s image). I’ve found the perfect venue for this fight is a fresh water spring sprawling through the creator’s garden. It is a fight culminating not in the expression of violence, but of respect and care.

I found such an opportunity one fall morning at the Tan Vat access on the Current River, a blue-ribbon stretch of water within the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. After a stressful week, the perfect remedy to blow off some steam was a fly fishing outing on of the most picturesque stretches of water in the Midwest. This particular run is a haven for wild brown trout—pugnacious fighters who are especially skittish (i.e., hard to catch) with a wholly undomesticated rearing. Upon arrival, I found steam lifting off the stream’s surface—a living metaphor for the steam I would blow off just by wading into its healing waters. An ethereal stage was set for remedial encounter—but not in the manner one might expect.  

I fished for twenty minutes without a single bite. Some small browns were rising, so I changed flies to a smaller dry fly presentation that would work on the surface (#20 Trico). Still no takers. I changed again to match the blue-winged olive hatch, and still nothing.  I gradually worked my way upstream for about two hours, growing increasingly frustrated—I couldn’t remember the last time I got shut-out on fishing trip. Instead of unwinding my stress, this trip was serving to enhance it. Then, after about two hours and fifteen minutes of toil, when I basically stopped caring, my indicator plunged beneath the surface in Matrix-esque slow-motion. I stammered to set the hook, and the fight was on.

My real screeched a shrill battle cry, like clashing iron, as the fish made a run, taking line out with him. Like a figure skater, he closed his first run with breath-taking jump, launching a couple of feet out of the water.  Invoking a trout to jump off the reel is one of the true trophies fly-fisherman can receive. But upon the jump something even better happened: it darted downstream.

Why would a trout moving downstream matter?  While this may sound odd, the answer is: the trout made me move. You see, the stress of the week, the keeping of a stiff-upper lip, and bottling up unmet expectations all collected within me.  The week’s angst didn’t move me, not outwardly, anyway. Quite the contrary, they remained stagnant within, rotting me from the inside out. I needed a fight—someone, or something, that would move me, grapple with me, and force me to exert a struggle. Something to which the pertinence of the fight transcended my temporal disenfranchisement. Something to move me towards perspective, perhaps? This fish was the perfect anecdote, as it drove me downstream in order to remain below it. The relevance of staying below the fish is that if I cut off his downstream corridor, he has to work upstream, against the current to avoid me. The fish must expend more energy in the process, which leads to fatigue, and enhances my odds of landing him, i.e., winning the fight.

The trout halted my progress of maneuvering downstream by freezing me to watch it pirouette out the water again. Witnessing true beauty flash through its raw grit for survival, I momentarily lapsed from my role as opponent into that of an awed spectator. No doubt, the fish was trying to dislodge the fly hooked in his mouth with the post-jump impact. He was fighting for his life, a relentless frenzy of feeling that only a fly rod can adequately convey. As the fish jumps, lands, and speeds off, there exists an unmitigated connection between its mouth and my hand. From the trout’s jaw, to fly, to line, to backing, to a slow-action pliable rod, to reel, to my hand, my wrist, my forearms, and… my heart. Every fiber of muscle, every nerve root, every sinew that formed this unbroken connection between human and fish, moved in synchronized unison.

Two species. One amoral, tasked to flee by nature. And one, with moral faculty, tasked to subdue the other as steward, not oppressor. One expending all the physical grit it can muster to preserve its physical life. The other, expending all the fleshly grime it can purge to sanctify its spiritual life. And there lies the Gordian dichotomy: we are two different creatures and citizens of the same creator, dutifully exercising our roles in His garden.

The fight endured for a total of eight minutes. The spectacle included three jumps, five runs, approximately sixty lineal yards covered, and final capitulation into my net after two previous false-surrenders. As I cupped this brown warrior, reviving him against the oxygenated current, it finally hit me that I didn’t need to catch scores of fish on this trip. Numbers were irrelevant. The creator provided me what I needed: one good fight.

 Few things in nature rival the raw beauty and fight found in a wild brown trout.

Few things in nature rival the raw beauty and fight found in a wild brown trout.

And here’s the lesson: it appears the easier our economy makes it to acquire stuff, the harder it becomes to find true value. Never before has a culture been able to feed its impulses, and yet, we seem to grow more and more discontented as the easy-coming stuff accumulates. More doesn’t equate into happiness.  Such was the dictum of this outing, as more fish would not have satisfied my appetite. Fish after fish would’ve simply been easy come/easy go. The value was not in quantity. The true value my soul sought was in the fight—the release of tension in the most native and unpredictable of environments. Such a fight unleashes our most primal senses. Such a brawl forces us to negotiate currents, delicately balancing our way up and downstream in a hydro-geographical chess match. In the heat of such battle we read and react, employing mind and body, all the while diffusing the percolating tension that drove us into the stream. Our gain from the fight is not only found in the mastery of setting a fish free—an act due the victor, but also in mastering and releasing our mounting sinful flesh.

Please don’t mistake me as advocating that our private and personal repentance is not sufficient. Giving our anxiety to God and relying on His sustaining grace, alone, must be the primacy of our hope (Phil. 4:6). There is no substitute for those given the mind of Christ, to take all thoughts captive to His Lordship, and confess our disappointments and hang-ups to our great high priest (1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 10:5-6). Perhaps the best way to convey what I am saying is to use an illustration Francis Schaeffer used in his book Art and the Bible. I remember Schaeffer talking about Rembrandt’s portrait of a hanging side of beef, how an encounter with, and the gravity of visceral, raw art imbues a greater sense of the reality it portrays. Fly fishing and tangling with a brutish wild trout is in many ways a form of natural art. A fight with the untamed conveys the struggle and release of self-preserving aggression we fail to grasp in words. As this wild trout fights to the end, for all it knows, its very life is at stake.  Our fight, like the trout’s fight at the other end of the line, are both purging instinctual gunnery to preserve who we are meant to be.

I find no better outlet in the created order for dispensing my sinful strain in an object manner than a trip to the spring. If, when you are down and can find a spring, or even better, a trout stream, near you, I prescribe a visit for three reasons. First, it brings perspective. The carefree ambiance of the fish and native wildlife call to mind Christ’s admonition about worry, how meager birds of the air “neither sow nor reap… yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt. 6:26). We see the setting of the spring, and the care the creator gives to the life teeming within, and the perspective reminds us of the goodness of God who meets our basic needs each day, and according to His promises, will do for eternity.

Second, the spring provides us with intimate view of our purpose. God mandates from the beginning in Gen. 1:28 that we are to care and maintain the rest of creation as God’s vice-regents on earth. Yet, we so easily forget who we are!  A trip to the spring, as well as a close-up and hard-fought encounter with its residents, reminds us of the high-bar that’s been set for being righteous trustees over the beauty we observe. 

Finally, a trip to the spring foreshadows the eternal calm and peace that is to come. The final chapter has been written, and when we who are united to the creator by faith come to the point where He sets straight this fallen world, we see pictures of a river of life flowing from the throne of the exalted creator (Rev. 22:1-2). The flowing tranquil picture of the spring is shadow, growing shorter each day, cast from the final picture of the crystal spring of eternal harmony.

These are but three reasons, as if you needed any, to make a pilgrimage to a spring.  There you can find a God-bequeathed sanctuary to cast aside your amassing inner tumult. Living water in nature, pointing to the living water of the creator, who fought the fight in our place. But sometimes, while we sojourn here, we need a fight—a healthy fight—as a God-ordained outlet. You can find such a release in the theology from the spring.

An Indicator of Being Carried About

Random confession: I’ve never shied away from wearing pink. From a standpoint of fashion, I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to own it. But from a standpoint of practicality, pink is my go-to color for a strike indicator (aka “bobber”) when fishing choppy water, given its high visibility when bum-rushed by currents, overhanging vegetation, moss, etc.   

strike indicator.jpeg

(Aside: I have fallen in love with these air-lock strike indicators… big time “where ya been all my life?”)

On a recent fishing excursion, I decided to fish a fast riffle of water at the foot of the iconic dam at Bennett State Park. Therefore, I dressed my line with a pink strike indicator. I’ve caught some very nice sized rainbow trout in this run called “the whirlpool hole”—a well-deserved moniker given the chaotic and unpredictable movement of the water.  The trout pool up in a very specified area, surrounded by boulders and other obstacles. To be effective, the fisherman must be very attentive to where the whims of the water might hijack the presentation, or it won’t even make it to the chute of trout.

But a strange phenomenon of panic overcame me during this outing. A sudden, helpless panic, like the one I felt when losing sight of my kids in a hotel swimming pool (only to discover they were 15 feet in front of me, which was the convincing factor in my decision to get Lasik). My impervious little pink indicator, which stridently bobs and weaves through the cascading deluge like a caffeinated pinball, was inexplicably swallowed up by a torrent, not to resurface. I was quickly stricken with that dual fear of powerlessness (to help) and not knowing (what is being done to that which you love).  It is a sickening feeling when something we treasure and steward is at the full mercy of external forces, beyond any of our senses. While my indicator is nowhere on par with my kids, it was the type of terror that was similar.

Bennett Dam.jpg

My eyes flickered, scanning the rapids where the indicator was last seen. The incessant water pouring over the dam wall sounded as a turbine of torment—one hell-bent on crushing my hopes with its roar. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little pink flicker.  “No way,” I thought, as the slashing object was at least 25 feet from where I had last seen my indicator.  Sure enough, as if fighting for its life, my little pink indicator re-emerged: far from me, the pool of fish, and the natural course of the stream.

I breathed a sigh of relief that my $4.00 indicator, once lost/now found, was safe after being carried away. But my mind—already in a lamentable state—immediately brought into focus something much more profound about this visual drama:  how sadly true this picture represents the doctrine of many in the church today. God’s word tells us in Ephesians 4:13-15:

“… to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

So what is doctrine, and why is it so important that it be absolute, fixed, and unchanging?

Scott Swain states, “In its basic sense, doctrine is any sort of teaching…  Doctrine teaches us to see God as the one from whom and through whom and to whom all things exist, and doctrine directs our lives to this God’s glory.” And since God is eternal, and thus not subject to time or change, it only makes logical sense that doctrine, true doctrine from His special revelation, not vacillate. It should be fixed, as He is fixed. Doctrine should exist not to give the practitioner glory, but for God’s glory alone (Is. 42:7). If this is done earnestly, it, by the nature of the object and giver of doctrine, will not be fluid.

But even more, doctrine, to be fixed, must be objective. By that, we mean it is concerned with making people holy over making them happy. It is the truth of doctrine that drives our actions and puts our faith into motion. J. Gresham Machen observed, “Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first. “Christian doctrine lies at the very roots of faith.” Thus, faith given by and placed in an eternal object, which drives the moral decisions and behaviors we make, is a natural outflow of doctrine. If our doctrine becomes fluid, contrary to its fixed source, we consequently find ourselves tossed about by the capricious wave of the moment.

 So then, what are some practical implications of holding fast to sound doctrine? Look no further than our vignette from the stream. Three things happened to my strike indicator, a tool used to buoy my fly through uncertain waters: I lost sight of the indicator, I lost course, and I lost assurance. In the same manner, by failing to stake our doctrine to the immovable, inerrant Word of truth, we risk losing the same things.

  • We Lose Sight of Ourselves

A nuclear pink indicator should be highly conspicuous amongst the background of white crashing waves. No different is the life of believers, called by the Creator to be set apart from the world. Peter noted that we would be identifiable because we no longer conform to our former passions of our natural condition (1 Pet. 1:14). Yet, like the indicator, when we are no longer visible amidst what should be an ambiance of stark contrast, we are ceding the very purpose for our existence. We surrender the very transcendent identity we’ve been given in Christ. Dousing our lamps under a basket, we, like the indicator, become homogeneous with our surrounding crowd, impotent to realize our true, holy identity. We look in the mirror and struggle to identify who we really are.

  • We Lose Course

Jesus didn’t call us out to live an easy life. Yet, one of the easiest things in this life is simple to ride the flow.  The flow of the world says give in to your emotions and “listen to your heart,” because you deserve an easy road. The gospel says, we are to store doctrine in our heart and not follow the world whose hearts are blind... The gospel says the way is difficult, and we will find tribulation in this world.  We need to stay the course, guard the doctrine deposited within us, and not swerve from it (1 Tim. 6:20-21). Once the indicator re-emerged, it was too far off course to be of use during that particular episode, requiring a re-casting. May we, as vessels cast by the Creator be humble enough to get back up upon discovering how off-course we’ve been carried, and through God-granted repentance, get back on course for the next approach.

  • We Lose Assurance

Nothing arrests our comfort and self-worth like being in bondage. Particularly, when such bondage is to some finite thing with no lasting value. I lost all assurance that the strike indicator- lost in the current and subject to its waves rather than my fly rod– would act again according to its purpose. When we are mastered by a temporal wind (often blowing from the mouths of false teachers), uncertainty floods our hearts, drowning our future, certain comfort by enslaving us to the “next big thing.” Of course, while being bandied about in the midst’s of the maelstrom, few recognize they are actually caught in this never-ending vortex that constantly seeks to fill the void of meaning with ephemeral fads. Nor do they recognize that the cunning person they are following, with the new cool scheme, is often manipulating them for their own gain (call it as Nietzsche did, natural man’s innate “will to power”).

John Calvin was shrewd to connect “the cunning of men” (who lead us astray using winds and waves) with imposters “that will always be there” to menace and attack our faith. Calvin points out that the Greek word translated “cunning” derives from dice players who manipulate others with cheating tricks. Think of modern hucksters using unfounded doctrine to exploit us for their own gains and egos. All at the expense of our own assurance and comfort, which often is undermined by the same line of questioning employed at the fall: “How can you know truth?” “If it is relative, should you not at least do what makes you happy?” “God wants you happy.”

In reality, we know that true, eternal comfort comes by knowing the eternal Creator (John 17:3). What pleases the Creator has not been left obscure, for us to seek out with cyclical gimmicks that never fulfill their promises. The Creator has clearly revealed in His word, those things that please Him, as His psalmist notes in Psalm 119:8, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me know wander from your commandments.” Our Creator wants to be holy and set apart, which yields an unshakeable joy as we grow to maturity in Christ. A joy that cannot be moved by the winds and waves of false doctrine, like undiscerning children. A joy that comes from the need for nothing else but knowing Christ by way of knowing His unchanging doctrine.  A lesson carried to us by the waves of the theology from the spring.

Theology from the Sea

Fishing is fishing, right? Regardless of body of water, type of fish, or rod and reel, you are doing essentially the same thing: manipulating a presentation. And if you do it well enough pursuant to the variables unique to each setting, you catch fish. Or so we humans, trustees over the Earth, like to think.  Inflating our existential autonomy, particularly over nature, just comes natural to us, doesn’t it? You see, last week my family partook in a new adventure: a lovely deep sea fishing excursion, just off the coast of Destin, FL. Nature served as teacher on this fishing trip, and this experienced fly fisherman discovered: 1) fishing is not fishing, 2) it is pure hubris to believe I have much control over the outcome, and 3) the one who reigns over nature’s vast oceans can readily humble he who reigns over his own waders.

Fishermen are a proud lot, no different from all humanity, really. We like to pretend we know more than we really do. We like to believe the results are dependent upon our ability (also a form of pretending).  And we like to be in command over the creation we seek to subdue through the act of fishing. Why wouldn’t we hold such ideals? Such thinking feeds our egos, our appearance… our autonomy.

As our boat set sail, little did I know the scintillating, azure waters were being used as a decoy of sorts to rein in my pride. Concerned that my kids might get scared, or worse, seasick, the calm waters of the emerald coast prompted me to coolly advise them how to avoid such travails. “The waves might get choppy,” I warned them. “So don’t watch inside the boat—look out at the ocean. And move to the back of the boat where it’s more stable. Widen your base when you are reeling in fish—let the trolling lines set the hook, and don’t fight them too hard if they run.” My kids would’ve been more than justified rolling their eyes at the counsel of a guy who has weathered the deluge of many stream currents, but hardly a single one out in the ocean.  But they remained silent and humored their fisherman dad.

 Jobe Taggart, Deep Sea Fishing

Jobe Taggart, Deep Sea Fishing

Then, the trap sprung. As the boat retreated from the bay, the frolicking tranquil teal waters suddenly changed color, melding into a foreboding, crashing cobalt. It was as if the ruler of the sea used the color shift of the water to indicate the transition to phase two of its plan. As the waves got bigger and bigger, and the boat teetered chaotically about, my self-autonomy got smaller and smaller. Spiraling into dizziness, I moved to the back of the boat, fixing my gaze on the crashing waves. But it was to no avail: the ocean numbed my body from head to foot like I’d been injected with Propofol. I soon draped my tingling body over a bucket, loosing what little breakfast I had left. My consciousness seemed to ebb and flow as I nebulously perceived my kids, unfazed, merrily catching fish while I groped for my bucket. 

It’s hard to explain how mental and physiological anguish, like the panic and nausea I felt, can compound internally. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, and yet, the pain and terror kept advancing. Losing all faculties but pain reception, I managed to gasp to my wife that I wanted to die, and would’ve loved to jump overboard to escape this hell. Eventually, my kids apparently caught enough fish to shift the cap‘n’s sympathies toward me, and he cut the trip short to head back to dock. Amazingly, as the boat crossed the color threshold from raging indigo back into calm, turquoise water, I was revived with an infusion of life. The nausea quickly subsided as I hoisted myself up from the bucket. I could now talk without fearing every syllable would induce vomit. Peace was returned to my psyche, albeit a greatly humbled psyche. It then registered that the hue of the sea seemed to act as a barometer for my actual human vitality… to my autonomy. The crew was amazed I was able to walk off the boat unassisted.

Back on land, I sat on a dockside bench to collect myself. The episode I just survived brought to mind the following periscope of Scripture:

“But ask the beast and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?... He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a trackless waste. They grope in the dark without light, and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.” – Job 12:7-9, 24-25

I entered the boat full of my own understanding. Midway through, I was groping about like a drunk. And upon my deliverance back on the dock, it was clear who had done this.

Warranted are some final observations, deduced from the same teacher who provides us with the theology from the spring. First, we live in a day where it’s popular to attribute failures and blows to our pride as being perpetrated by “the evil one” or the “tempter.” While I don’t deny that spiritual warfare is real, or that we are tempted, consistently attributing failures to the evil one misses the theological mark on two primary grounds. First, it gives the devil more power than he actually has, granting him pseudo-omnipresence. We pretend that he is always there, tempting us and our friends to fail at every moment (what power and mobility that must require for a finite being!). Second, it gives our ego less blame than it deserves. Such thinking often shifts blame (and accordingly, accountability) to the tempter. The end result is a cop-out, with untenable views that elevate ourselves and the tempter, because the finite tempter can’t force us to go beyond the breakpoint of our own desires (James 1:14-15).

So while we can plead “the devil made me do it,” a defense that preserves our ego and pride, such a mea culpa is often not realistic or humble. The more immediate capacity for committing acts of rebellion against a holy God is not found in a solo devil, but rather resides in my own heart that is innately prideful, wicked, and self-promoting (Rom. 3:12-3; Jer. 17:9, Is. 59:7). No one had to ever teach me how to act proudly—it came naturally. By shifting blame to the evil one when bad things occur, we are ignoring the root of the bad thing: our corrupt hearts. From our hearts pride spring. Pride ultimately exists as the root of all sin because it robs God of His divine glory, as pride prefers something to God. Consider the audacity of a created thing, disregarding the precepts of the Creator in favor of its own desires. That is pride-the root that branches out into other manifestations of the creature’s rebellion. The creature, acting on prideful desires, stages a coup, feebly trying to establish its own self-sovereignty. Yet, even the fish of the sea declare the futility of such delusions of self-grandeur.

My coup was presenting myself with pride to my children. I presumed to know more than I did, I presumed we were owed the tranquil conditions as we set sail, and I presumed I could handle what came our way. Would I didn’t presume was that the Creator of the sea, the one who controls every molecule within it, can cause the sea to take away my understanding, vomiting up my pride, and rending apart my illusion of self-autonomy. It is the Creator who permits the adversary to act, who creates calamity, who sends disaster, and yet always does so justly (Job 1:6; Is. 45:7; Amos 3:6). No innocent person has ever suffered at the hands of the very nature He controls. Yet, most wondrous of all, is that He takes away understanding and creates new hearts for those in rebellion to Him, pulling them from the stormy abyss. Reflecting on that dockside bench, the truth was made clear: the devil didn’t send the storm or cause me to do evil, but He who controls the storm causes me to do good.

Thus, fishing is not fishing regardless of location. But thankfully, the same Lord reigns over it all—truth universally found in the depths of the theology from the sea.

A Simple Presentation for Starters

Ugh, a blog? For years I curled my nose at the concept, considering them banal at best, self-serving and narcissistic at worst (the very reason I never joined Facebook). But over time, my “bloggery snobbery” has waned, intersecting with the release of my book, Theology from the Spring (did I use the term “self-serving” above?). In short, the allusions and types of theological truths reflected in a freshwater stream were too much to internalize. Such is commonly called general, or natural, revelation.

Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian, described it this way: “All revelation is anthropomorphic, a kind of humanization of God. It always occurs in certain forms, in specific modes. In natural revelation his divine and eternal thoughts have been deposited in creatures in a creaturely way so that they could be understood by human thought processes.” And thought processes, indeed, they stimulate. Thus, like a mountain spring that diffuses miles of sub-surface pent-up water, may this blog be a fountain of natural revelation sharing reflections seen in the spring.  

I’m not sure what is more stupefying: that it has taken me 41 years to make my first blog post, or as a wannabe fly fishing aficionado, it has taken me 73 days to make my first fishing trip of the year? Regardless, both converge to reflect our topic: a simple presentation—one where the efficacy is not ultimately dependent on us. What do I mean by that? Let me give you some background.

Yesterday yielded pristine conditions at Bennett Springs State Park (near Lebanon, Missouri). The crisp, cool temperature of 46 degrees, was perfect: cold enough to jilt your reactions and wake you up, but not so acutely cold as to freeze your limbs stiff. The stream waters received me like an old friend—the kind you see every few years but have such a chemistry that you can pick up immediately where you left off.  Unlike the half-peppered embrace of human acquaintance that might give a pat or a hug, the stream grips you pervasively, with simultaneous contact from all 360 degree angles. Like a father that won’t let go of your hand, the constant suction encompassing your waders is the stream’s way of holding you close.

I’m not a great fly fisherman as it is. But I knew I’d be rusty given my unplanned sabbatical (by this point in the year, I’ve usually fished two or three times), so I planned to start slow and simple. With that approach, I was not going to use a fly that required a lot of action and manipulation on my end. Therefore, no jigs or streamers. Furthermore, I wasn’t going to use anything flashy to attract fish (called “attractor flies”), nor was I going to rig my line with multiple hooks/flies (commonly called droppers). My self-accommodating strategy was to dead-drift a small, bare-bones nymph with no hackle or paint, floating sub-surface 4-5 feet below a small strike indicator (“bobber” as some say). The strategy was certainly not flashy, and geared as a bit remedial since I knew I couldn’t rely on my dulled abilities.

The fly I used is pictured at the bottom of this post: just a simple 1/80th ounce jig head/hook. The natural lead color of the head has been painted white. The metallic-gold body/shank of the hook has been wrapped in white thread. Luminosity and luster have been covered in white purity. No flamboyant hairs tied on. No eyes painted to “look like” something it’s not. Just a pure white, unadorned, simple presentation.

So what happened?  Well, I waded out into a moderate flowing channel. I moved gently, wanting to get a feel for the environment:  the speed of the current, the clarity of the water, the presence of moss, the ever-changing-depth, etc. I made four casts upstream, each moving further outward away from me.

With no strikes on the first four casts, it was obvious the fish either had no desire for the fly I was presenting, or I was not getting my presentation to them (or both). But now having a feel for my environment, I made a critical adjustment: I simply moved my strike indicator up about 8 inches, which results in moving your fly 8 inches deeper into the water. If the fish were suspended about 8 inches deeper in the water column as I suspected, my simple presentation would be available to them.

And would you know, on my first cast after making this adjustment, my strike indicator plunged under the surface, and about two minutes later I had a beautiful, glimmering rainbow trout in my net. No gimmicks, no fanciful décor, no manipulative action. Just a simple hook wrapped in pure white thread.

So we now take this story back full circle: what is the natural theological truth reflected in creation to aid in our human thought processes? What was the theology from the spring teaching us yesterday?

It tells us we don’t have to lean on the natural “knowledge” of our own heads, or the natural metallic of our jig heads to make presentation more “real.” It tells us it is the Creator who makes raw, simple presentations irresistible. It tells us we don’t need to add eye catching visuals and ear tickling stories to our presentation to draw people, nor do we need vibrant attractors and shimmering pearl flashabou for audience to take notice.  It tells us to not think so highly of our selves or the efficacy of our man-made creations. The Creator renders effectual a simple presentation conveying the covered righteousness of Christ and the pure holiness of God.  It tells us we don’t need to alter the presentation with multifaceted programs and attractions, often through “bait and switch” means, nor  must we employ multiple hooks and droppers on our fishing rigs. The Creator makes the pure and simple gospel a presentation—one the natural heart cannot understand and thus seeks to “enhance”—that is sufficient.

It tells us naturally in general, what God’s word tells us, specifically.  Before setting out in the steam yesterday, I read from Acts chapter 16. What was particularly striking was the conversion story of Lydia. After Paul had shared the gospel on the Sabbath Day, we are told in verse 14 that a woman named Lydia heard it, and that “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Notice the order. Lydia heard, what was a general call, and upon doing so, her heart was opened and renewed to believe, understand, and desire the simple spiritual truth by God.  Divine illumination such as what Lydia received is often referred to in Scripture as not only affecting a new heart, but also receiving “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” (Ps. 146:8; John 12:39-40; Matt. 13:15-16; Eph. 1:18). Jesus, Himself, in John 8:43-47 inextricably links hearing and desire with heart, illustrating a dichotomy whereby the desires of natural man, and the ears and eyes that fulfill such desires, proceed from  a natural, corrupted heart, but supernatural, or spiritual, desires, come from a new supernatural, heart created in men, from which flow eyes and ears to apportion supernatural truths.  We can only respond to (i.e. desire) a spiritual presentation when we are given a new spiritual heart like Lydia, and thus provided with new spiritual appendages to appropriate them.

So, it doesn’t matter how complex, how socially relevant or cool, or how flashy your appeal might be, unless the Creator Lord opens/creates a new heart, and with that, new desires, a genuine affection for, and receipt of, the presentation will not occur.  The supernatural birthing of a new heart and concomitant new desires is best described by Jonathan Edwards, who said:

“And this is what I mean by supernatural, when I say, that gracious affections are from those influences that are supernatural. From hence it follows, that in those gracious exercises and affections which are wrought in the saints, through the saving influence of the spirit of God, there is a new inward perception or sensation of their minds, entirely different in its nature and kind from any thing that ever their minds were the subjects of before…  Both spiritual love and natural, cause desires after the object beloved; but they are not the same sort of desires; there is a sensation of soul in the spiritual desires of one that loves God, which is entirely different from all natural desires. “

Perhaps a better object example is what occurred later in in the day: I caught a trout, and upon landing it, I realized that it did not have an eye on the same side of its face/mouth where I hooked it!  Even without physical eyes to see, this fish drew near and connected with a simple presentation. No ornate presentation was needed, in spite of his lack of natural eyes. Such a lesson teaches that we should be reticent to place too much stock in the flashiest of our man-crafted presentations: regardless of creature, man or fish, we should be confident that the end result is not up to us. This is not to say there is no place for intricate flies and presentation. The Creator of the stream can affect desires toward the simple or complex. Our task is to be humble stewards in sewing a true and pure presentation, and let the Creator provide the desire and the results. A simple lesson taught by the theology from the spring.

 Simple and effective:1/80th ounce jig head painted white, wrapped in 6/0 white thread.

Simple and effective:1/80th ounce jig head painted white, wrapped in 6/0 white thread.